A SOBERING AND SUBSTANTIAL CAT
Why do we tend to stick with the intolerable? When slashing at those closest to us becomes our way of filling inner emptiness or expressing a family bond, even love, what extremes are we capable of? Is it possible that webs of deceit can serve as a strong familial glue across generations? What (even warped) plus points may lie concealed therein?
Examinations of these extremes, and a thorough exploration of family dynamics that can rate as textbook classics, are most satisfyingly achieved in the African-American Shakespeare Company’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, playwright Tennessee Williams’ favorite among his creations and aptly described by company Artistic Director L. Peter Callender as “sexy, messy and, I think, incredibly moving.”
That’s a description with which I wholeheartedly agree. Watching this Southern cotton magnate clan navigate through their habitual web of mendacity (a term almost triumphantly embraced by patriarch Big Daddy as the brood gathers for his birthday) and denial (as much of their father’s terminal illness as of their own frailties), is an emotionally exhausting but highly rewarding theatrical experience. This is a family with long-checked frustrations that jockeys for position in the family network. When that already fragile house of cards starts to unravel in an onrush of schemes, suspicions and secrets, this ensemble, palpably committed to telling this story, is riveting.
The lusty performances of the actors portraying the four key characters were nothing short of stellar. ZZ Moor as Maggie “the Cat” sets a sizzling tone in the first seconds with her imbalanced, mercurial cavorting about the bedroom. Even when she is electrifying, Moor also seems to have achieved a control that keeps her from going over the top into caricature and makes her performance all the more powerful.
Maggie has a beautiful counterpoint in her brooding, alcoholic husband Brick, a faded football star who broke an ankle in a freak mishap, portrayed with equal strength by Tyrone Davis. He seemed to me to rule the potentials in silence, a master of the deadly wordless glance. His silent brooding becomes menacing while Maggie ricochets around their room, and when that simmering brooding breaks out, the result is terrifying. Another nicely enhanced touch is the use of Brick’s crutch: His embarrassing reliance on it, his gritty avowal that he will hop or crawl if deprived of it, and his father’s attempts to wrest it from him, beautifully underline the dynamics in the family.
As bombastic yet inept Big Daddy, Peter Temple is a master of the layers of a character who struggles to be the kingpin – a crowing rooster strutting down a slippery rail – as his fumbled attempts at tenderness slip through his bluster. As his longsuffering wife Big Mama, Eleanor Jacobs turns in a heartbreakingly honest study of a loving family matriarch enmeshed in denial.
Additional characters admirably fulfill Williams’ intentions for their roles, though they pale a little, I thought, in comparison to the firepower of the principals. Shawn J West as Brick’s brother Gooper, trying to establish some order in the face of the father’s demise, and Yazmina Kay, wadding about like a fluffed mother hen as his very pregnant wife Mae, admirably fulfill both their characters’ expectations and desires in this simmering family stew. The tykes portraying the clan’s children added a delightful element even while the eldest (Essenia Robinson) heartbreakingly shows a budding expertise in the sniping that her elders are so adept at.
Williams’ occasional bits of humor, badly needed to relieve the tensions and familial bitterness, fittingly drew lusty and relieved laughter from viewers. No small part of the humor was presented by Robert Henry Johnson as the wild-haired Rev. Tooker. Rounding out the cast was W. “Alx” Alexander as Doctor Baugh, a functional but rather colorless character.
Furthering the story with even more subtle but effective explorations and revelations of the dynamics in the story are touches like the set, dominated by Maggie and Brick’s bed and gauzy white curtains. The bed is encircled by polished brass railings suggesting an enclosure (is the suggestion that tenderness is a guarded or a forbidden element in this family?); the curtains skillfully underline the layers of deceit and flimsy posturing among the Pollitt family.
This is not an easy play to watch, and the language and underlying sexual tensions make it unsuitable for young children. But for the mature viewer it is a beautifully rendered theatrical treat.
photos by Lance Huntley
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
African-American Shakespeare Company at the Buriel Clay Theater
scheduled to end on February 17, 2013
for tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.African-AmericanShakes.org